Unlimited Design Language. An interview with the graphic designer Vilmantas Žumbys

April 7, 2022
Author Agnė Sadauskaitė

We have a great space on this platform to talk to creative people and look for answers to various discussions, this time about design. I still do not know what is the right answer to the question what makes design great, but I do know that a great visual identity is an invitation to an event, and the cover of a book or a magazine often tempts a person to take a publication home without properly investigating the contents. We embarked on a journey looking for answers with Vilmantas Žumbys, a graphic designer and artist, who was born in 1992 in Skuodas. Vilmantas does a wide range of work: graphic design, book art, illustration and animation. We can find many well-known authors, publishers and institutions in his list of collaborations. According to Vilmantas, when he discovered book design he found his niche. His designs are the result of long developed, debated and contemplated ideas: after all, a book is not just a cover. In this interview, we talk about great books, great design, Vilmantas’ creative path, his favourite projects, and future plans.

Agnė Sadauskaitė: You graduated from Vilnius Academy of Art and studied graphic design at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. Tell us more about your creative and learning path.

Vilmantas Žumbys: My creative path began in Skuodas, where I was born and grew up, long before I started studying in Vilnius and Leipzig. Since my childhood, I have always been sketching and drawing. I just couldn’t help creating. So naturally art studies were the obvious choice.

The beginning at Vilnius Academy of Art was difficult. In the Department of Graphics, I first had to get acquainted with illustration and traditional printing techniques, which were quite foreign to me. I am not sure what happened, but at that time it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I no longer could express my ideas on a piece of paper. This led me to look for more interdisciplinary solutions, to be interested in digital technologies, experiment with spatial ways of expression. Probably because when we later became acquainted with the art of the book, I felt as if I had finally found my place. The book suddenly revealed itself to me as an object encompassing all things that I was interested in and much more. I am grateful to the teachers, and especially to my supervisor, the book artist Agne Dautartaitė-Krutulė, for helping to understand this.

I later studied at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. Acclimatisation in the new environment was complicated, but after the initial cultural shock, I quickly joined the academic community. My class was led by Dutch graphic designers Maureen Mooren and Britt Helbig, I studied with people from France, Belgium, Romania, Germany and other countries. My studies not only helped me to develop as a person, but had a huge impact on my work. In Leipzig I became acquainted with the international field of book art and alternative ways of expression. These graphic design trends that prevailed in Germany in 2014 reached Lithuania a few years later. I still try to visit events that are organised by the active Leipzig book art community – they inspire me a lot. I visited Leipzig this March: the international fair of independent publishers ‘It’s a Book’ took place there. Over 70 independent publishers all around the world were invited.

Teatro žurnalas No 21, cover. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

AS: How would you describe your style? What shaped it the most?

VŽ: My attention has always been drawn to creators with a consistent style: I have repeatedly tried to reduce my visual language myself, but that turned out to be too limited. I’m now more aware that the ability to adapt my expression to each project is far from being a disadvantage, and, on the contrary, is one of my greatest strengths. I try to be as open as possible when approaching different topics, as only in that way can I be sincere with myself and my work.

I think this approach has been shaped by my interest in interdisciplinarity. I like to change and mix my field of interest and work tools: I might prepare the layout for a book in the morning, draw an illustration during the day, and create an audio track for a video in the evening. It helps me to take breaks, step back, and see ideas that came to me before in an ever-changing light. At the same time, there is a continuous exchange of ideas: sometimes ideas rejected for some projects complement other projects perfectly and it fascinates me a lot.

Illustration ‘It is going to get better’ for 2021 Pride Month. Courtesy of the artist.

The cover of Goda Palekaitė’s book Schismatics. Photograph by Gintarė Grigėnaitė.

The contents pages of Goda Palekaitė’s book Schismatics. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Pages from Goda Palekaitė’s book Schismatics. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

AS: You are a prolific artist engaged in a wide range of activities: graphic design, book art, illustration and animation. You also work with various publishers, theatres and institutions, such as Teatro žurnalas and the Kaunas Biennial. How do you choose the projects you want to work on? Can you single out the collaborations that were the most complex or brought new impetus?

VŽ: The areas that interest me most are culture and publishing, but I consider various proposals. I make decisions based on my capacity, and how much creative potential I can see in the collaboration. I am very happy when people with whom I previously had created, come back with new projects. As an example, I have been collaborating with the Teatro žurnalas (Theatre Magazine) team for seven years now. Working with the team not only educated me as a novice creator, but also brought many collaborations with Lithuanian and foreign theatre communities.

Until now some of the most inspiring projects for me were Goda Palekaitė’s book Schismatics and Robin Waart’s book evol / love. These collaborations shared the sincere involvement of the authors in the creative process, which undoubtedly contributed to the success of both publications.

In her bilingual book Schismatics (published by Lapas), Goda Palekaitė tells the stories of 11 extraordinary historical figures, futurists of the past, called dissidents, perverts, heretics and fanatics in their time. It includes Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic who empirically studied the architecture of the sky, the orientalist and writer Essad Bey, and my personal favourite, the self-taught dinosaur discoverer Mary Anning. The main aim of the design of the book was to find a unified visual system to help the reader navigate among semi-fictional stories created by Goda, for which we used signs in various styles, designed specifically for each character.

Robin Waart‘s book evol / love (published by Stichting Mei) provides an archive of subtitled movie shots talking about love and an extended index that examines excerpts from movies in different sections. Vertical flipping, pink paper, negatives of mirror-inverted illustrations, the laminated cover canvas, 666 copies, and the blank (?) inner pages of Japanese binding, are some of the means of expression used in the book to create a multi-layered conceptual collage, that supplements other works by Robin. Book „evol/love“ was a part of instalation, special furniture was also created to present it to the audience.

Robin Waart’s book evol / love. Photograph by Ayako Nishibori.

The contents pages of Robin Waart’s book evol / love. Photograph by Ayako Nishibori.

The contents pages of Robin Waart’s book evol / love. Photograph by Ayako Nishibori.

AS: Every design you make seems to blend organically with the work, and now I have a hard time imagining a different look for publications such as Bertolt Brecht’s Brecht on Theatre (published in Lithuanian by Scenos meno kritikų asociacija) and Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (published by Hubris). They are both examples of great design and an easy-to-recognise cover. How are your ideas created?

VŽ: The creative process is unique each time, but it usually starts by getting to know the content and the author. As I mentioned, I always try to be open-minded and allow intuition to guide me through intriguing territories. In this way I define the field of study. If I have the time, I take breaks and return to the study several times: that is one way to trust the initial impulse, and not to get lost too much in the search. When I have collected enough material, I start thinking what would be the best way to reveal the content. I combine the ideas I have with previous knowledge, and then it is time to select the best of them. Sometimes the authors of the books or projects help with that.

For example, when creating a design for „Capitalist Realism“, in which the golden ratio, ecology, stripped books and even animation found their place, I read the book three times. Margins of the manuscript were covered with various inscriptions, sketches, explanations, excerpts from Mark Fisher’s lectures on YouTube and so on. In this project I also had to find a way to compile a book with a different composition in each page and quickly try it out in practice. The process was intense but extremely interesting.

Mark Fisher’s ‘Capitalist Realism. Is there no Alternative?’. Cover, 3D model/visualisation.

Mark Fisher’s book ‘Capitalist Realism. Is there no Alternative?’. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Mark Fisher’s book ‘Capitalist Realism. Is there no Alternative?’. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

AS: For the 13th Kaunas Biennial „Once Upon Another Time… Gyveno jie jau kitaip“ you created a visual identity, from the poster for the event to the design of the tote bags. Tell us more about this journey collaborating with a big international event.

VŽ: I was very pleased to get the opportunity to contribute to this important event. I knew it would be a big challenge, but I accepted it gladly. Working with such a large organisation was a new experience for me, and effective communication was a very important factor in creating the visual identity of the Biennial from start to finish. After working for a year, it was pleasant to see my work in various places around Kaunas.

It was an honour for me to collaborate with the Canadian curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois and the entire Kaunas Biennial team. This year, the Biennial examined myths and personal and community stories related to transformations, and it all seemed to come alive before my eyes when we attended the opening ceremony at the Lithuanian Basketball House. I was very happy to see the very different personalities coming together to celebrate contemporary art. I met a lot of special people there, including my significant other.

A poster for the 13th Kaunas Biennial in an underground passage. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

The cover for the catalogue for the 13th Kaunas Biennial. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

AS: Most of us have probably heard and used the saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, and it is common to go against this advice: there has been a lot of analysis in the last few years on the growing need to visualise narratives, as a growing audience is reluctant to read long texts. In your opinion, how much do the visuals affect the reader? Can the layout affect the way we receive the content?

VŽ: Undoubtedly, in a modern world dominated by a short attention span, the visual expression of a book is crucial to engaging readers. Visual solutions can help better understand the content even before reading the text, we pay a lot of attention to that.

However, as much as designers would care about visuals, the design of the book is not just an image. It is often mistakenly thought that a book designer just draws an illustration for the cover. In fact, we take care of the book’s structure, typography, the choice of material, planning the production process, and everything that helps the reader to see the book not as ‘a long text’, but rather as an interesting and valuable experience.

The cover for Bertolt Brecht’s book Brecht on Theatre. 3D model/visualisation.

The contents page of Bertolt Brecht’s book Brecht on Theatre. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Pages from Bertolt Brecht’s book Brecht on Theatre. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

AS: What core values do you apply in your work?

VŽ: It is very important for me to have a respectful relationship with the content; I try not to harm it. In order to make sure that the design complies with the vision of the creators, I communicate extensively with all my collaborators. I work with many different authors, and through my practice I try to visualise their unique voice.

In graphic design, as everywhere else, the problem of gender inequality is still acute, and I try to draw attention to it and fill my typographic arsenal with more than just male made fonts. It is also important for me to be able to choose materials from environmentally responsible manufacturers. I am glad that this is gaining popularity among publishers as well.

Robin Waart’s book evol / love with the author’s other publications. Photograph courtesy of Robin Waart.

AS: What achievements are you most proud of? What works are lined up for the future?

VŽ: The work I am most proud of is the aforementioned book evol / love, co-created with the artist Robin Waart. Thanks to the creative process and its unconventional form, which unexpectedly has received international acclaim, the book will always be very dear to me. It won two national book art awards (Lithuanian and Dutch), and was shortlisted for the Best Book Design from all Over the World 2022 competition.

I am currently working extensively with Alexandria Nova, a network of North European directing programmes, and the Helsinki Theatre Academy. Together we are co-producing the book ‘Looking for Direction’. In it, 17 authors from around the world reflect on directing practice and pedagogy in the 21st century. The presentation of the book will take place this May at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin.

Robin Waart’s book evol / love at the exhibition of the same name at the Rongwrong Gallery in Amsterdam. Courtesy of Robin Waart.

Robin Waart’s book evol / love at the exhibition of the same name at the Rongwrong Gallery in Amsterdam. Courtesy of Robin Waart.

AS: Thank you for spending the time with us, Vilmantas.